Harper’s Renata Adler Spectacle

Renata Adler is being disagreeable again. In a long piece published this month in Harper’s, she insults the New York Times in general, several of its editors and writers in particular, and the late John J. Sirica, the Republican judge who presided over the Watergate trials that culminated in President Richard Nixon’s resignation. All this by way of amplifying a disagreeable remark in her latest book, Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker, in which she wrote that she decided not to review Sirica’s memoirs because Sirica was not a national hero but “a corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest figure, with … clear ties to organized crime.” (The New York Times criticized her repeatedly for not backing up this statement with proof, which is what occasioned her response.) Now, anyone who has followed Adler’s nearly 40-year career as a magazine writer and film critic knows that disagreeableness isn’t newsworthy coming from her. Adler specializes in unpleasantness of the high-handed variety. What’s notable in this instance is that she’s wrong. There was a time when you counted on Adler to get a thing right, no matter how acidulous she was about it.

It’s important to establish precisely how she’s wrong. Screeds can miss the mark in three ways: They can be wrongheaded in their portrayal of events, since forcefulness shades easily into overstatement; they can put their authors morally in the wrong, by being ungracious or doing an injustice; or they can make claims that are factually wrong. Adler is two for three. She’s wrongheaded to the point of obtuseness in her claim that the Times went after her in a conspiratorial fashion, although the newspaper did pile on, publishing eight pieces about her book, at least four of them devoted to the Sirica sentence. She’s ungracious in the extreme in her refusal to withdraw–and in her insistence on expanding on–her comments about Sirica, since she fails to establish that they’re true. But when it comes to the facts, she is not in error, as far as Culturebox knows.

This is largely because she has few new facts to offer. A close reading of Adler’s charges against Sirica reveals that they’re based almost exclusively on her close reading of the first 59 pages of the memoir she declined to review, To Set the Records Straight: The Break-in, the Tapes, the Conspirators, the Pardon (1979). Adler’s method is to highlight irregularities in Sirica’s account of his life (the possible involvement of his father, a barber, with bootlegging; Sirica’s career as a professional boxer at a time when the sport was illegal in Washington, D.C., where he lived; his career-enhancing friendship with several powerful Republicans at a time when he himself was an unusually unsuccessful young lawyer) and to insist that such anomalies are inexplicable unless as a young man the judge had “clear ties to organized crime.” Adler asks a series of good questions of Sirica’s narrative, and perhaps some ambitious young American historian will make a name for himself by exploiting her textual insights and doing the research required to show that Sirica had help from the mob. Unfortunately, Adler vitiates her case further not only by failing to dig into the matter herself but by being highly selective in the way she lays out her argument. She says the associations she finds so suspicious are inexplicable, but they’re not, because in his book, Sirica explains them. (Once you’ve thought about Adler’s questions, Sirica’s explanations aren’t convincing, but you’d never know from Adler that any exist.) For instance, Sirica says that he met many of his powerful friends through his work after hours as a boxing instructor and sparring partner. As for his career, it advanced rapidly after he became–by his own admission–a Republican Party hack; that was how he came to sit on the federal bench.

It’s easy to guess where Adler might have got the idea that Sirica was corrupt. Adler once worked as a speechwriter for Peter Rodino, then the chairman of the House committee that oversaw the inquiry into the possible impeachment of Nixon (the same committee Hillary Clinton worked for), and it seems likely that at some point then or later, one of Adler’s Watergate buddies let drop a damning remark about Sirica and organized crime. But, of course, Adler should have substantiated the rumor before spreading it. Her paranoia about the Times is understandable, too. If you’re Adler, it must be tempting to believe that the word went out in the building to launch a coordinated campaign against you. But though possible, that scenario is implausible, and she certainly doesn’t prove it. The heads of newspaper departments generally don’t sit down together and decide to target someone, and anyone who has met Times editor Joseph Llelyveld would have a hard time believing that he operates by diktat. Adler would have been safer observing that there was a kind of groupthink at work in the outcry against her: Sirica is a hero in the press and William Shawn’s New Yorker is still lamented by reporters old enough to remember it. She criticized both, which probably predisposed her colleagues to dislike her.

Adler’s Harper’s essay raises two questions more troubling (to Culturebox, anyway) than the quibbling over Sirica: What’s Adler, with her reputation for tough-mindedness, doing advancing claims she hasn’t investigated, in the context of loopy rants against the Times? And why did the editor of Harper’s let her? To care about the answers, you have to know how good Adler once was, and that she demanded high standards of herself and everyone around her. Adler, now in her early 60s, was in her early 20s when she published her first epic-length piece in The New Yorker, a giddy celebration of teenybopper music with hilarious digressions into the oddball onomatopoetics of early rock. She followed up this triumph quickly with others: an energetically reported account of the 1965 civil-rights march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery; an analysis of antiwar activism that accurately identified the forces that would tear the movement apart in a few years; and a novel-length study of group therapy, in which she foresaw the applications to which the new psychotherapy would be put–est-like quick-fix cults, “business brainstorming sessions,” and “industrial conferences at which professional and personal grievances are aired.” Adler’s voice was both young and remarkably authoritative, if haughty in that I-write-for-The New Yorker-and-you-don’t way. She was hip yet uncredulous, no mean feat in the touchy-feely 1960s. She was stylish, too, a fact she turned to her advantage by befriending photographers. A picture by Duane Michaels from the era shows a tremulous girl with huge lidded eyes and a dark pixie haircut wearing a corduroy jacket–a sort of Jewish Jean Seberg. Richard Avedon later became one of her closest friends, and immortalized the prevailing image of her as a lanky woman with angular features and a messy blond braid.

In 1968, Adler became the chief film critic of the Times for 14 months, before she quit and went back to TheNew Yorker. While she held this position, her writing began to enact a strange internal drama that wound up defining her career. You never knew, when you began an Adler review, whether you would finish it upset at the sharp cruelty of her tone or elated at her knack for getting what’s wrong with a movie exactly right. Her unkindness was such that it seemed like her prose ought to fail some test for decent critical behavior, and yet if you pick up the pieces now, more than 30 years later, you may find that you can’t put them down. She evinces little empathy for the medium of film; she’s too chilly to bring you inside its thought processes, the way great criticism can; and her penchant for lofty and ill-defended put-downs seems unnecessarily provocative. But her pronouncements are usually either so correct or else so interesting that you can’t stop thinking about them. Her observations that The Graduate pretended to be about WASPs but was really about Jews (considering the hero’s “shy inhibited” intellectualism or Mrs. Robinson’s “Jewish inflection on, ‘Now if you won’t do me a simple favor I don’t know what’ “); that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey “revel[s] in its own I.Q.”; or that the noble blacks played by Sidney Poitier had spawned a whole new reverse-racist stereotype exemplified by “the black scholar in Planet of the Apes–pedantic, myopic, and unathletic in the extreme”–all generate a click of recognition, and were not being said by anyone else at the time.

The implicit demand that a reader perform a cost-benefit analysis between sneering and insight–is the insight worth the sneering? You hope the answer is yes–characterizes her writing after she returned to The New Yorker, too, in everything from articles about TV quiz shows to the short pieces of experimental fiction that she began publishing. Adler’s most controversial piece before the New Yorker book and the Harper’s essay is an attack on Pauline Kael in 1980 in the New York Review of Books, and it showcases everything that’s both exhilarating and jarring about Adler’s approach. She eviscerates Kael’s prose deftly, revealing it to be riddled with silly sexual hyperbole and inadvertently hilarious protracted rhetorical questions, and points out correctly that Kael’s endless we’s and you’s bully the reader. But Adler also seems blind to Kael’s main strength, perhaps because the lack of it is Adler’s weakness: a gut-level grasp of what it is directors and actors are trying to achieve, and where they succeed and fail.

Adler’s book on The New Yorker forces even her fans to acknowledge the possibility that America’s most lacerating cultural critic may have become a crank. The book has passages of brilliance, particularly in Adler’s account of William Shawn’s descent into the passive-aggressive weirdness that led to his losing control over the magazine, but Adler mostly sounds like a woman in the process of being swallowed whole by rage and self-pity. Querulous aggrandizement oozes from the book, and taints everything. She drops names–Hannah Arendt, Donald Barthelme, Diana and Lionel Trilling–as if to convince us that she matters. She lashes out so vituperatively at fellow writers that it’s impossible to tell where truth ends and ressentiment begins. And, of course, she smears Sirica in passing, without deigning to say where she formed her contrarian opinion about his integrity or lack thereof.

Enter Lewis Lapham. Here the real villain of this story makes its appearance–not the editor of Harper’s himself, but what his decision to publish her piece exemplifies, which is a development in magazine journalism that, among the many developments Adler deplores in her book (chasing after trends rather than setting them, dirty-minded sensationalism, excessive concern for “visuals” over prose), she forgot to mention. Perhaps that’s because it has become so widespread it’s nearly invisible. I’m talking about the fondness among magazine editors for articles in which the author exposes some perverse desire or troubling history, supposedly for the edification of the public on some controversial issue, but really for the voyeuristic thrill of watching a writer strip off his or her defenses and maybe make a fool of him- or herself. Daphne Merkin’s New Yorker piece about how she loves to be spanked; Andrew Solomon’s painful memoir in the New Yorker of his experiences with severe depression; Kathy Dobie’s article in Harper’s about her life as a high-school slut; almost anything by the serial confessor Meghan Daum; most of the “Mothers Who Think” department of Salon, and, it must be said, more than one article in Slate–whatever their literary merits, these are all products of an editor’s decision to let writers exploit their neurotic suffering and hold it up as a cautionary trophy for the public to gasp at in horror. (The belief that readers are flooded with compassion and stop feeling contempt for the behavior in question has never, to my knowledge, been borne out.) Editors like these pieces because they create an instant sensation, of course, but for good economic reasons as well. They require no reporting, which takes money and time, and they’re impossible for other magazines to reproduce. 

I don’t want to be unfair here. Self-exploiting articles are no different in kind from the memoirs that are remarkably still popular in book publishing (such as, for example, Adler’s own New Yorker book). And there is the occasional exception that proves the rule, such as ex-teacher Sara Mosle’s account in the Times magazine of her efforts to help her troubled former students, a personal narrative that illuminated movingly the limitations of individual charity. But the genre’s rare successes don’t make the overall spectacle any more salubrious. And when magazine editors publish self-exploiting pieces by their own staff writers, you can’t help feeling that the editors have been using their employees instead of protecting them against their own worst instincts, which ought to be part of an editor’s job.

Actually, Adler’s piece is less self-exploiting than it is embarrassing. It’s an exercise in bitter self-justification familiar to any writer who has ever felt ill-used by reviewers–a long-form version of the whiny letter to the editor that ought to be quashed in the word processor. It’s hard not to read Adler’s essay, but also hard not to feel that you shouldn’t, because it accomplishes nothing other than reveal to the world that the once mean-but-right Adler is now just plain mean, and wrong. When you’re the person who has always pointed out that the emperor has no clothes, you should not be allowed to go out naked. Lapham should be ashamed that he let the manuscript leave his office.